Sometimes our dog’s behavior can tell us a lot – if we listen. This is especially true if the behavior is out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, we often label this behavior with a term like “bad” or “disobedient” which is rarely helpful and can keep us from looking at the root of the problem and figuring out what to do.
I recently had two separate experiences that illustrate why it is important to listen to the dog.
"It's Too Much"
I was visiting with friends who have a young dog and we were working on his self-control. He did a lot of great things while we were training and very obviously made the right decision many times. Because these were friends, we were doing a fair amount of chatting and we lost track of time. My friends were dismayed when the dog started exhibiting some behaviors that he had stopped doing long ago. I was dismayed as well, but not at the dog. I had underestimated how long we had been asking the dog to work, and how hard this work was for the dog, which I shouldn’t have because learning self-control can be exhausting.
He was mentally and physically unable to keep it together and his behavior had reverted. We should have put him in his crate or in another place where we would not be asking him to continue to work so hard while we talked. When we did, the dog that was jumping around a few minutes earlier totally zonked out.
Lesson learned. This dog needs shorter training sessions and when he is not being trained directly in that particular situation, he needs to be in his crate where he can’t practice the unwanted behavior. When this is done, his training will be much more effective and he will eventually not have to work so hard to act appropriately.
The next day, I ran my dog India in an agility trial. The first run of the day was Jumpers, an event that tends to be very fast because the course consists of only jumps and tunnels. This is challenging for India and I because she tends to be a little out of control first thing in the morning. She started well but then she ran past my front cross and went out of her way to go into an off-course tunnel. This was unusual for her. I got her back on course but she was very slow all of a sudden and did not speed up for the rest of the course.
I knew something was up. Was she tired? That seemed unlikely. Was she stressed out by a mistake early in the course that caused her to spin coming out of a tunnel? She can be sensitive and I was a little disappointed but my reaction was pretty calm so I didn’t think that was the reason. She is sometimes easily distracted but this was not a situation where that would have applied. I was ready to forget about it when I saw the fabulous Lo Baker who was running the trial. She told me to check India’s back legs because her gait was off.
She was right. India was walking fine but as soon as we started going into a slow trot, she had a slight hitch in her gait. I was able to watch a video of the run and while there was nothing obvious, she had started to slow down right before she went off course.
India’s behavior was telling me that there was something wrong but I was not listening. Yes, it was easy to miss but I was too quick to dismiss her odd behavior and I could have caused serious damage if I had continued to run her.
So if your dog does something out of the ordinary, ask yourself why and don’t just blame it on some unhelpful label. You may be able to learn something that will help with future training or give you some insight into a problem the dog is having.
You can also read the article I wrote about this topic for examiner.com.